Every Facebook Messenger User Should Be Paying Attention To The Company's Recent Audio Scandal
Photo Credit: PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 09: In this photo illustration, the Facebook logo is displayed on the screen of a smartphone in front of a computer screen displaying the logo of Facebook on September 09, 2019 in Paris, France. Several US states have launched antitrust investigations against web giants including Facebook and Google with the viewer their business practices, but also the collection and exploitation of personal data. In total, eight states have announced, via the attorneys general, the opening of an antitrust investigation against Facebook social media. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

Every Facebook Messenger User Should Be Paying Attention To The Company's Recent Audio Scandal

Thanks to ever-improving technology, people are now able to control a lot with their voice alone. From virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa to voice text options on your iPhone and messenger apps, you can search the internet, make calls, and more without much effort. Many people communicate freely with these devices, assuming that if anyone is listening, it’s only the people you’re messaging, but think again.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Facebook paid hundreds of contractors to listen to and transcribe voice clips of audio from users of its services. The contractors weren’t told anything about the audio, including how it was obtained, which left many of them uncomfortable. Facebook did not deny the practice either. 

This isn’t the first time that a company has been exposed for allowing contractors to transcribe users’ audio without obtaining permission. Earlier this year, Time reported that Amazon workers listen in on Alexa conversations to transcribe and annotate what they hear. Today, Microsoft updated its privacy policy to admit that people are listening in to some Skype and Cortana recordings. 

Despite the frequency of these reports, people are often left shocked by them, but they shouldn’t come as a surprise. Artificial intelligence systems aren’t magical. Each one needs to be fed information to run, and that’s where people come in. Both Facebook and Amazon had people transcribe audio in order to feed it back into the systems. So, what’s shocking isn’t necessarily how the systems work, but the fact that companies never bothered to disclose it to users. 

“Would as many people have bought these products if they knew that Romanian contract workers would listen to them, even if they didn’t deliberately trigger their devices?” Atlantic Staff Writer Sidney Fussell wrote, posing a question that should be more central to the conversation.

People need to be aware of the privacy trade-offs when interacting with certain technologies, but the responsibility doesn’t lie with individuals alone. Right now, companies operate with the assumption that because people use their product — they can collect and use information however they want. In a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from big tech companies, that’s not fair.

With big tech companies latching onto privacy as a new marketing tactic, it’s worth asking why they didn’t alert users of third-parties listening in before. Not to mention, anything else we don’t know about.